Takeaways from the 2023 OurAfrica.Travel Conference | Fauna Travel

Takeaways from the 2023 OurAfrica.Travel Conference

David Groves / Unsplash

By: Scott Dubois, Fauna Travel Designer

Travel designers regularly meet with representatives from hotels and tour companies to stay up to date on the latest developments, and travel conferences are a way to pack a lot into a short period of time. Thanks to the pandemic, there are great virtual options like OurAfrica.Travel. I spent the better part of last week up early and past midnight on almost 40 calls with my African colleagues. It felt like speed dating for travel pros!

I came away inspired by my conversations and with many new itinerary ideas. Here are my top takeaways for those that weren’t able to attend.

Could Zambia Be the Next Hot Destination?

The country is safe, English is an official language, and the camps are a great value.

A canoe safari in the Lower Zambezi / Courtesy of Classic Zambia
A canoe safari in the Lower Zambezi / Courtesy of Classic Zambia

Zambia isn’t often considered a destination for first-time visitors to Africa. However, I met with several Zambian lodges, and I’m starting to think otherwise – especially for people who love wildlife, walking, and canoeing. Victoria Falls is the most popular destination in the country, but the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks are wild and beautiful, with only a fraction of the tourist traffic of popular safari destinations like Kruger or the Okavango Delta. Plus, the country is safe, English is an official language, and the camps are a great value.

Zambia is also the birthplace of the walking safari, and you can have an epic wildlife experience on foot with Robin Pope Safaris or Classic Zambia. The latter was featured in a recent New York Times story. Luxury travelers will appreciate the style of Time + Tide Chinzombo in South Luangwa or Anabezi in Lower Zambezi. Kafue National Park is also one of the largest national parks in Africa, with a number of camps to choose from and hardly any tourists.

If you want to diversify your Zambian safari itinerary, you can start in Cape Town for a few days. From there, you can fly to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, or Livingstone, Zambia, and explore the rest of the country.

Ethiopia is Rebounding

Trekking in the Simien Mountains at Limalimo Lodge / Courtesy of Limalimo Lodge
Trekking in the Simien Mountains at Limalimo Lodge / Courtesy of Limalimo Lodge

Since 2020, Ethiopia has been fighting in its northern Tigray region along the border with Eritrea. There have been accusations of genocide, and the conflict threw the country’s entire tourist economy into question. Fortunately, there was a cease-fire in late 2022, and it has been successful from all accounts. There were multiple Ethiopian companies present at the conference, and the message was positive. Trips to the southern part of the country, such as the Omo Valley, have always been safe and continue without incident. In addition, northern attractions closer to the conflict zone, such as the Simien Mountains, are now rated as safe to travel to. I’m excited to add Limalimo Lodge back to the top of my travel wishlist.

There is More to South Africa than Kruger

mFulaWozi Wilderness Private Game Reserve / Courtesy of mFulaWozi Wilderness Private Game Reserve

With new direct flights from the United States to Cape Town or Johannesburg and a fantastic exchange rate on the rand, there has never been a better time to visit South Africa. Most Americans know of Kruger National Park and the surrounding private reserves as the premier safari destination in the country. Indeed, I spoke to Jabulani in the Kampama Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger and was very impressed. However, there are lesser-known safari options all over the country that are worth considering.

In the north, along the border with Botswana, the Madikwe Game Reserve and Tswalu Kalahari are massive and malaria free, making them great for families. Madikwe has a range of lodging options, from budget to luxury, while Tswalu will appeal to those looking for remote luxury. Mashatu is another private reserve just across the border in Botswana that is targeted toward photo enthusiasts and is often included in South African itineraries.

If you are driving the Garden Route along the scenic South African coast, there are also many good private reserves in the Eastern Cape, including Shamwari, which was recently featured in a Netflix series. En route, you could stay at the ever-popular Grootbos or Mosaic Lagoon Lodge for a deep immersion in nature.

I’m also interested in mFulaWozi Wilderness Private Game Reserve, located on Zulu tribal land along the boundary of the massive Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal Province. The park is the oldest protected area on the continent, but the lodge is relatively new and looks to be built to a high standard of luxury.

Note: Our South African colleagues are currently dealing with load shedding, which is scheduled power outages from the unreliable national utility. Fortunately, most properties now have backup generators or have converted to renewables to avoid disruption.

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Sustainability is More Important than Ever

The safari industry requires sustainability and conservation for long-term survival, so it’s no surprise that Africa is leading the way in sustainable hospitality. I enjoyed hearing about new electric safari vehicle fleets at Lewa Wilderness and Emboo Camps – they are so quiet that the animals don’t hear you approaching! In the digital realm, Weeva is a new sustainability software suite targeted at hotels to let them quantify and then improve their operations. It was encouraging to see some of our favorite hotels, like Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, using it to track their progress.

Beyond technical innovations, light footprint camps were also a theme. For example, Lake Natron Camp in Tanzania has a three-month to natural state plan to return the campsite to nature in short order. Masoala Forest Lodge, Classic Zambia, and Safari Series also operate sustainable tented camps in stunning locales worth visiting. They don’t offer as many amenities as larger luxury lodges, but they embody a purer form of safari that emphasizes connection with the wilderness.

Pool at Sussurro / Courtesy of Sussurro
Pool at Sussurro / Courtesy of Sussurro

Community impact is also an essential aspect of sustainability. Most lodges now hire from their local communities, which should be the bare minimum of effort to note when booking a property. Beyond that, I was impressed that Jaci’s Lodges devotes almost 1/3 of the company profits to staff equity. Sussurro, a stylish beach resort in Mozambique, has also crafted a stunning hotel entirely with the local community and African products.

COVID Was a Time for Building and Refurbishing

Visitors to Africa may find camps in better shape than ever this year.

Okavango Explorers Camp / Courtesy of Great Plains Conservation
Okavango Explorers Camp / Courtesy of Great Plains Conservation

The lockdown was particularly hard on the travel industry but also presented some opportunities. Many lodges kept staff busy refurbishing tents and upgrading facilities. Visitors to Africa may find camps in better shape than ever this year. Great Plains Conservation has been particularly busy. Most notably, they have upgraded the popular Zarafa Camp and Ol Donyo Lodge. I’m particularly excited about two of their new properties in Botswana. In July 2022, they opened Okavango Explorers Camp in the Selinda Private Reserve. In addition, Sitatunga Private Island, a two-tent exclusive-use camp, will open in the Duba Concession in July 2023.

But What About Kenya and Tanzania?

I learned so much this week that it’s hard to cover it all! However, there were some standouts from Kenya worth noting. I can’t wait to work a private cruise on the Enasoit Collection’s Tutsiri Dhow into my Kenya itineraries, and the spa at Mara Bushtops looks absolutely incredible.

Outdoor dining at Chada Katavi / Courtesy of Nomad Tanzania luxury safari
Outdoor dining at Chada Katavi / Courtesy of Nomad Tanzania

In Tanzania, the southern safari circuit is looking like a great alternative to the northern circuit for crowd-averse travelers. There are great camps in Mahale Mountains, Katavi, Ruaha, and Nyerere National Parks. Favorites include Jabali Ridge by Asilia Africa and Greystoke Mahale and Chada Katavi by Nomad.

It was also encouraging to hear that the dam project at Nyere National Park may not be as disruptive to the safari industry as once feared. There is some additional light pollution, but eventually, it may be a similar experience to Lake Kariba on the Zambezi.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. Email info[at]faunatravel[dot]com with any questions.

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